“Full of Ticks and Fleas”: The Odyssey and a Life of Pets

CW: Animal abuse

Odyssey 17.290-304

“So they were saying these kinds of things to one another.
And a dog who was lying there raised his head and ears.
It was Argos, enduring Odysseus’ dog the man himself
Had raised but never used before he went to sacred Ilion.
In earlier years young men used to lead him to hunt
Wild goats and hares and deer. But now
he was lying there, put aside in his master’s absence
on a pile of manure heaped up from mules and oxen
right in front of the door waiting for the slaves
to take it away to fertilize Odysseus’ great dominion.
There Argos the dog was lying full of ticks and fleas”

ὣς οἱ μὲν τοιαῦτα πρὸς ἀλλήλους ἀγόρευον·
ἂν δὲ κύων κεφαλήν τε καὶ οὔατα κείμενος ἔσχεν,
῎Αργος, ᾿Οδυσσῆος ταλασίφρονος, ὅν ῥά ποτ’ αὐτὸς
θρέψε μέν, οὐδ’ ἀπόνητο, πάρος δ’ εἰς ῎Ιλιον ἱρὴν
ᾤχετο. τὸν δὲ πάροιθεν ἀγίνεσκον νέοι ἄνδρες
αἶγας ἐπ’ ἀγροτέρας ἠδὲ πρόκας ἠδὲ λαγωούς·
δὴ τότε κεῖτ’ ἀπόθεστος ἀποιχομένοιο ἄνακτος
ἐν πολλῇ κόπρῳ, ἥ οἱ προπάροιθε θυράων
ἡμιόνων τε βοῶν τε ἅλις κέχυτ’, ὄφρ’ ἂν ἄγοιεν
δμῶες ᾿Οδυσσῆος τέμενος μέγα κοπρίσσοντες·
ἔνθα κύων κεῖτ’ ῎Αργος ἐνίπλειος κυνοραιστέων.

Attic Red Figure Chous, Penn Museum

I have always had mixed feelings about this very famous passage from the Odyssey. I side in part with Plutarch who notes that Odysseus seems to shed more tears (one) for his dog than he does his wife. And I also bristle at how much empathy people seem to be able to generate for the aged hunting dog when they can muster so little for the mutilated Melanthios or the hanged enslaved women at the epic’s end.

If I have to be honest with myself, this scene does not inspire contempt in me as much as a deep sorrow. We talk much of Argos’ loyalty, but his loyalty is a mere prop to aggrandize Odysseus and increase the value of his return home. I care far less about Odysseus’ tear than I do about the neglect: Argos, abandoned by Penelope, Telemachus, and Laertes. Argos, infested with fleas and sleeping on a mound of shit.

My wife wants us to get a puppy and name him Zeus. The second half of that sentence is calculating because she knows that I would enjoy nothing more than training a dog to follow commands in ancient Greek and shouting the vocative O Zeu in city parks. She also made this argument after watching me play with her sister’s dog, Apollo: down on the floor wrestling with an energetic English cream retriever of over 70 pounds, she said I looked happy.

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Apollo as a puppy

I have been saying no to pets for a decade. After our daughter and son were born our first cat together, Chineh had to be put to sleep. She had been on hormone supplements for a year and was suffering from congestive heart failure three weeks after our son was born. I took her to the vet knowing it would be the last time and did not know that the Dr. would ask me to stay and hold her while he administered the drugs. I told myself that would be the last time. And I had to say that, because it was not the first by far.

Anyone who follows the twitter feed for this account knows that my promise went unfulfilled. Last year, we capitulated and got a cat from a shelter. He’s a polydactyl tuxedo cat named Mowgli. He might be the sweetest cat I have ever known. But he was so sweet that he ruined our family. There was just not enough cat to go around.

One day, I came home from some summer meetings at work and the family was huddled around a computer. The three of them (with Mowgli in hand at 10 weeks) had been watching cat videos all day. My wife informed me that we had to drive to Maine. My first thought was that someone had died (I grew up in Maine). When I asked what was wrong, she told me, “Oh, nothing, we have to go put a deposit on a cat and choose which one we want.”

I do not talk a lot about my wife in essays because she is not a social media person and values her privacy. But anyone who knows her also knows her powers. We were in a car and looking at Maine Coon Cat kittens within three hours. Three weeks later, we returned.

Again, anyone who follows this account on twitter knows Hermes, his attempts to escape our home, his eye infections, and his surgery. (Oh, the cat birthday parties too.) What people do not know is that when I can’t sleep at night and lay on the couch wondering what the fuck is happening to the world, Hermes comes over and starts grooming me. He licks my hair from root to end and then, if I do not start petting him, he bonks me in the cheek with his massive hairy paw.

If we get a dog, it’s Hermes’ fault. He’s, well, unleashed something that’s hard to explain.

Homer, Od. 17.301-305

“Then, indeed, [Argos] noticed that Odysseus was near
And he wagged his tail and relaxed both ears,
But he wasn’t able to go any closer to his master then.
Odysseus saw him to the side and wiped away a tear,
Keeping it secret from Eumaios….”

δὴ τότε γ’, ὡς ἐνόησεν ᾿Οδυσσέα ἐγγὺς ἐόντα,
οὐρῇ μέν ῥ’ ὅ γ’ ἔσηνε καὶ οὔατα κάββαλεν ἄμφω,
ἄσσον δ’ οὐκέτ’ ἔπειτα δυνήσατο οἷο ἄνακτος
ἐλθέμεν· αὐτὰρ ὁ νόσφιν ἰδὼν ἀπομόρξατο δάκρυ,
ῥεῖα λαθὼν Εὔμαιον….

When I talk about the Odyssey’s crucial recognition scenes, I always forget about this one. Odysseus needs his scar to be known to Eurykleia; he needs the story of the bed to finally prove himself to Penelope; and he has to tell the story of generations of trees to calm his father’s suspicions. Argos seems to need no sign, he just knows (ὡς ἐνόησεν). All that worry about some other Odysseus coming home dissipates with a wag of the tail.

I came from one of those families that always had a dog. I do not think it was possible for my parents to conceive of a family that did not have a dog. Before I was born, that had an Irish Setter named Duchess and a St. Bernard named Sam who used to follow the kids to the school bus and ride around town to the school (it was the 1970s, the world was different). When I was born, in a rare show of unity, my grandmothers made them give Sam away because they thought he was too dangerous. I used to see him at my godfather’s farm, tied up on a heavy chain, laying a distance from the house, flies swirling around him.

One of the things that is hard for me to explain to my spouse and impossible for me to talk about to my kids is that my life with pets is not a source of happy memories. My earliest memories of Duchess are of fear. And not fear of her, but fear for her. My parents, unlike Odysseus it seems, never trained their dogs well. Duchess used to run away and return after some time. It was such a regular occurrence that once my grandfather showed up in a pickup with someone else’s Irish Setter because he thought she was ours.

Duchess used to have accidents in the house because she was never walked and she was poorly trained. Every time, my father would scream, swear (“duchess, you fucking stupid bitch” is probably the earliest profanity I ever heard), and often hit or kicked her. More than once, he opened the door to the basement and threw her down the stairs. These are some of my earliest memories of my father and they do not add up to the man my wife met nearly 20 years later. And my siblings never saw him that way either.

When Duchess was a decade old, she gave birth to a single puppy. I must have been too young for kindergarten at the time, but I remember the utter confusion this inspired in our household but I do not quite remember my parents’ response. I was enchanted with this little squealing thing, this new life in our home. I named him Mud.

Three days later, I found Mud stiff and dead in the basement. My parents tried to explain to me that Duchess was too old to take care of a puppy and that Mud wasn’t meant to be born to begin with. We buried him in our back yard not too far off from where we grew squash and green beans.

We moved a few years later. Duchess was alive when we were getting ready to sell our home. Then, she was not when we moved. I have no memory of what happened to her. My father died almost ten years ago and I never asked him about it.

Homer, Od. 17.305-310

“…then Odysseus asked him
‘Eumaios, it is a great wonder that this dog lies in the manure.
His form is beautiful and I do not know clearly
Whether his speed was equal to his looks,
Or he was like those table dogs of certain men,
Those ones their masters raise for appearances.”

…ἄφαρ δ’ ἐρεείνετο μύθῳ·
“Εὔμαι’, ἦ μάλα θαῦμα κύων ὅδε κεῖτ’ ἐνὶ κόπρῳ.
καλὸς μὲν δέμας ἐστίν, ἀτὰρ τόδε γ’ οὐ σάφα οἶδα,
ἢ δὴ καὶ ταχὺς ἔσκε θέειν ἐπὶ εἴδεϊ τῷδε,
ἦ αὔτως οἷοί τε τραπεζῆες κύνες ἀνδρῶν
γίνοντ’, ἀγλαΐης δ’ ἕνεκεν κομέουσιν ἄνακτες.”

When Odysseus is asking about Argos, he wants to know if he grew up to be the dog he trained him to be. Odysseus applies an epic physiognomy here he also assumes for people: beauty should translate into good deeds; beauty without action makes you a useless suitor (or Phaeacian prince). But Odysseus also taps into an ancient distinction between working animals and, well, ‘pets’. Do we keep animals close to us just for show?

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Hermes is a “show” cat, for sure. He’s handsome, it’s true. Part of the reason I am so undone by Hermes is that he’s not like other cats I have been around. Where other cats are skittish, he is still. Where Mowgli and other cats I have had have rushed to the sound of cat food being opened, Hermes takes his time, eats a little and then walks away. He watches me do everything. My wife says I anthropomorphize his actual limited intelligence as contemplative. But who knows the thoughts of a quiet cat?

I did not grow up with cats. The first cat we ever had was an accident. We moved to 3 or 4 acres on the age of a large re-forested area in southern Maine (some of the land had been farmland in the late 19th century; some of it had been logged before the second World War; much had been burned in a famous fire mid-century). We had no neighbors by sight and few within a quarter mile.

One day, a small white and brown kitten was sitting, meowing at our door. Honest to goodness, I don’t know if there is anything cuter in the universe than a kitten. My mother was allergic to cats and forbade us to bring it in the house, but my sister and I took out a saucer of milk for the kitten creatively named, “Kitty”. When we returned from school, she was still there. At great urging from three children, my mother got some cat food and we fed her more.

The next day? Kitty was still there. We fed her and played with her outside, losing time the way only kids and new pets can. When we returned from school, she was still there. Later, after dinner, I went out to check on her and she was running strangely in the driveway. I caught her, and something was coming out of her rear end: a lot of something, most of her intestines. I called to my dad, who had recently returned home, and he looked at me, at the kitten and went inside.

He came out with a loaded .22, took the kitten, and walked into the woods. I have no idea how far he walked but there’s no way I wouldn’t have heard the report of the gun firing. I didn’t realize until later than Kitty had probably been hit by a car. It took me years to really think about which car that most likely was.

Homer, Od. 17.311-317

“Eumaios, my swineherd, you answered:
“Yes, this is the dog of a man who died far away.
If he were the way he was in looks and speed
When Odysseus left him to go to Troy,
You’d soon observe his great speed and valor.
Nothing ever escaped him in the deep forest
When he pursued. And he was clever at tracking too.

τὸν δ’ ἀπαμειβόμενος προσέφης, Εὔμαιε συβῶτα·
“καὶ λίην ἀνδρός γε κύων ὅδε τῆλε θανόντος
εἰ τοιόσδ’ εἴη ἠμὲν δέμας ἠδὲ καὶ ἔργα,
οἷόν μιν Τροίηνδε κιὼν κατέλειπεν ᾿Οδυσσεύς,
αἶψά κε θηήσαιο ἰδὼν ταχυτῆτα καὶ ἀλκήν.
οὐ μὲν γάρ τι φύγεσκε βαθείης βένθεσιν ὕλης
κνώδαλον, ὅττι δίοιτο· καὶ ἴχνεσι γὰρ περιῄδη.

Argos has heroic qualities, even specifically Iliadic ones. Speed and valor (ταχυτῆτα καὶ ἀλκήν)? You have an Achillean dog there, sir. But he’s also smart, like Odysseus: he is preeminent at tracking (ἴχνεσι γὰρ περιῄδη) and nothing ever escaped him in the deep darks of the wood. I don’t know if this is some foreshadowing of the murder of the suitors, but if a student claimed it on a paper, I’d give it a nice big check.

I stayed home the next day from school and generally made enough of a nuisance of myself that we got a kitten I named Nina the next week. Nina was the first pet who was almost solely mine. (My sister got a cat the next year named Jackie, mainly to taunt my father whose nickname was Jack.) I tried to establish the rule that she could not go outside, and this held for a while. When she was a month home, I was dropped off by a family friend early from school at the end of our dirt road. I came home to someone breaking into our home and stealing my father’s firearms.

The man in our driveway told me my mother was inside (which I knew to be a lie) and I silently stood at the end of the driveway. I probably scared the thief more than anything, and I certainly never felt myself in danger. He got in his car and drove off. I ran inside, through the door that had been kicked in, and called 911. The dispatcher was, in retrospect understandably, quite concerned about my safety. But I told her I had to put the phone down to find my cat. She was outside and in danger.

(I found her. She was fine, that day.)

My attachment to cats at that moment was linked to our trouble with dogs. After we moved, we had a new home so of course we needed a new dog. We picked up a shepherd-retriever mix from a shelter and named her Alfie after the ever present television Alien. Alfie was pure joy for three kids living on the edge of a forest with no friends around. My strongest memory of the time is just running around that house chased by that adorable puppy.

Puppies grow up to be dogs and when they are not fixed and are let to wander around outside, they get pregnant. Alfie gave birth to a litter of puppies a year later. Neither of my parents talked about her being pregnant and when she started giving birth to puppies, I was the only one down in the basement with her. She had six puppies. Over the next few months, we found homes for four of them.

No one who hasn’t spent time with a half dozen puppies understands how exhilarating and exhausting they are. We named each puppy and trounced around in the Maine snow with them until each one left. The two who remained, stayed for good. And it did not go well with Alfie. My parents built a pen outside and a large shed and the dogs were kept there, rain, snow or otherwise. They got loose once, attacked a neighbor’s dog, and nearly ripped his leg off. Alfie kept trying to run away from her puppies.

One day, I tried to corral the three dogs in the basement. Alfie would not go down the stairs with her offspring. She turned on me and attacked, leaving a four-inch gash in my leg. I don’t think I was mad at that dog for even a second because I never thought she was mad at me. My parents called the game warden. They told us Alfie was getting a “new home”. At age 11, I knew this was not how these stories ended.

I have no memory of what happened to the other two dogs. I do know they were still around two years later when a friend from junior high came to visit. Upon seeing the dogs, chained to trees a 100 feet from the house, dirty and ragged, he asked me how we could treat animals that way. I don’t know if I answered.

Homer, Od. 17.318-323

“But now he is overcome by evil and his master has died
Far away in another land. These shameless women don’t care for him.
The Enslaved women, whenever their rulers are gone,
Aren’t willing to do the right thing any longer.
Wide-browed Zeus strips a person of half their worth
Whenever slavery’s day overcomes them.”

νῦν δ’ ἔχεται κακότητι, ἄναξ δέ οἱ ἄλλοθι πάτρης
ὤλετο, τὸν δὲ γυναῖκες ἀκηδέες οὐ κομέουσι.
δμῶες δ’, εὖτ’ ἂν μηκέτ’ ἐπικρατέωσιν ἄνακτες,
οὐκέτ’ ἔπειτ’ ἐθέλουσιν ἐναίσιμα ἐργάζεσθαι·
ἥμισυ γάρ τ’ ἀρετῆς ἀποαίνυται εὐρύοπα Ζεὺς
ἀνέρος, εὖτ’ ἄν μιν κατὰ δούλιον ἦμαρ ἕλῃσιν.”

Argos serves here, I think, to represent some of the general entropy of the household in Odysseus’ action and as part of a process of vilifying the enslaved women before their deaths. I don’t understand why Eumaios says nothing of the rest of the family. (I mean, Telemachus parades around the island with two dogs.) Perhaps his place as the “good slave” makes it impossible for him to criticize family-Odysseus. But I’ve always thought a pet, because it depends on us, is a family’s shared responsibility.

I don’t usually get to the part of my story where Alfie is put to sleep. And I don’t know if I ever mention her puppies because even though I was not yet a teenager, I feel guilt for their lives and their ends. It is harder to tell the whole story because it is long and it seems embellished. And that’s before the next part.

Our second cat Nina eventually got to go outside. We lived on a large lot and we spent all our time outside in the summers. My mother was a school teacher and now I understand that she was suffering from depression and other issues. At the time, what I knew was that in summers, she slept a lot and spent the rest of the time in her bedroom, with the only air conditioner on, and the door closed. My siblings and I did what kids did then in the summer: we watched TV, we wandered in the woods, and we tried not to bring ticks in the house.

Nina turned out to be pregnant at the beginning of one summer vacation. I don’t know if my parents ever took her to a vet and we had gotten her from someone in the southern part of our town. She gave birth to seven kittens and they were just the cutest things I had ever seen.

The problem was that that summer saw the worst plague of fleas in decades. Our cats brought them home and the infestation was so bad when you stepped on the carpet, you could see dozens of fleas jump up and start to crawl up your leg. A day or two after they were born, the kittens were covered. I would pick one up and they would drip off them like water. And Nina stopped feeding them.

I told my mother. I told my father. Eventually, they called the vet and let me speak to them. I was told to use a comb and rubbing alcohol to try to get the fleas off the kittens. I did this with each one. Multiple times. The fleas came back. Then Nina stopped caring for the litter. One by one, the kittens stopped moving.

I don’t know what was going on between my parents. My father was gone for long days and overnight trips; my mother was distant as always. Neither of them came done to the basement to see the kittens. And I didn’t even think of asking how I would know if they were really dead. Even when I was burying them in our yard, I kept thinking I could hear them meow. We never discussed it.

We had the house fumigated, but the fleas came back. And you know what else? Nina came back, pregnant at the end of the summer. This is the part of the story I shake my head at even now. She gave birth again in a house covered in fleas. The kittens each died again one by one even after I combed them clean and tried to feed them with a washcloth dipped in milk. No one called the veterinarian the second time. Neither of my parents ever talked to me about that summer. That was three decades ago. I still feel nauseous when I think about it.

Homer, Od. 17.324-328

“So he spoke and went inside the inhabited home.
He went straight among the arrogant suitors in the hall.
But then the fate of dark death overtook Argos
Right after he saw Odysseus in his twentieth year.”

ὣς εἰπὼν εἰσῆλθε δόμους ἐναιετάοντας,
βῆ δ’ ἰθὺς μεγάροιο μετὰ μνηστῆρας ἀγαυούς.
῎Αργον δ’ αὖ κατὰ μοῖρ’ ἔλαβεν μέλανος θανάτοιο,
αὐτίκ’ ἰδόντ’ ᾿Οδυσῆα ἐεικοστῷ ἐνιαυτῷ.

Does Argos count as blessed in Solon’s words because he had a happy moment before he died? Does that one moment of relief at his master’s return make up for two decades of neglect? Will Odysseus go and get a puppy after the epic’s end?

There was another cat named Skye who lost an eye in a fight with a raccoon and like my sister’s cat Jackie just ended up wandering away one day as cats on the edge of a forest sometime do. Now I know that the cats probably fell prey to some predator or disease. But then, well, pets just kind of disappeared.

Once the last two of Alfie’s offspring were gone—wherever they went—my parents wanted another dog. This time, they went to a breeder with the plans of doing things right. We got a male chocolate lab and for reasons that are too convoluted to explain but include community theater, he was named Tevye.

We must have gotten Tevye in late spring or early summer, because by the fall he was a good-sized dog, but not yet full grown. My parents tried to keep this dog inside, closer to us, but they never put in the work to train him not to go to the bathroom in the house. He would go sometimes, my dad would explode and open the door and kick him outside. This went on until Tevye mostly whined at the door until someone let him out.

While we lived on a dirt road on one side of our property, the other side was bounded by a state road that ran north-south. There wasn’t a lot of traffic on the road and at night you could hear a car coming from a mile away. Our mailbox was a good walk from the front door to this main road. Tevye would go down there and look over the stone wall. My father would scream if he got too close.

One day, we were outside repairing the stone wall because some car had skidded off the road. As my father and I levered stones back into position, Tevye jumped over the wall and neared the road. My father started screaming and went after the dog, but I stepped in front of him and just said “no.” I pushed him back. I was in eighth grade and I was nearly the height I am now and the same weight. It was the only time in my life that I thought he would hit me and I wanted him too. But he didn’t.

On Thanksgiving, we were racing around the house trying to get everyone ready to go to my grandmother’s when there was a knock on the door. We rarely received door knocks, rarely enough in fact that my father was as likely to answer the door with a gun as he was to answer at all (he was deaf). At the door were two young men. They asked if we had a brown dog and said that one had jumped in front of their car.

They did not have a dog with them. My mother started screaming at them. My younger brother and sister started crying. I don’t know where my father went. But I was silent. I didn’t see any sense of losing it when we knew nothing. The world has more than one brown dog.

The walk from our home to the place where the dog was on the side of the road is three to five minutes, depending on your speed. Tevye was there, definitely dead, near the stone wall we had repaired. I had never handled a corpse that large before. My father hand grown up hunting, but when he took me out to learn to shoot at age six, I had no interest in the firearm or what you might do with it. Tevye was almost 50 pounds of deadweight and carrying him over that wall to a stand of pine trees felt like a lifetime.

No one else had exited the house yet. I walked the same distance back to the garage and got a shovel and then back to the stand of pine trees near the road. I started to dig near a large stone and had a large enough hole dug by the time my father came out to see what I was doing that there was no work left to be done. When I think of this now, I tremble, still confused: it was at least 20 minutes from when I left the house and started digging the hole before either of my parents came to see if their dog was really dead.

 I finished the job alone. I went to three funerals that year and one of them was a cousin who died at age 16 in a car accident. I remember that fourth funeral the most, standing alone over Tevye’s shallow grave.   

In similar tone to Odysseus’ dismissal of “table dogs”, Greek and Latin words for “pets” tend to emphasize their status as a luxury or adornment. In a fragment, Euripides calls a dog a “decoration [agalma] of Hekate” (Ἑκάτης ἄγαλμα φωσφόρου κύων ἔσῃ, fr. 968). Catullus’ Lesbia has a delicia; Martial’s Stella has a delicium (Ep. 1.7; cf. Seneca Apocolyntosis 13, subalbam canem in deliciis habere adsueverat). Exotic pets are signs of decadence: Theophrastus sees an obsequious person as likely to have a pet monkey (Characters 5); Plutarch records that comic poets slandered Perikles’ friend for his pet birds (Perikles 13.14). Diogenes Laertius tells of Heraclides and his pet snake (5.6, 89-90 These animals are different from foodstock and working animals: Alciphron calls his mistress’ Maltese puppy a “delight” (ἄθυρμα, Letters of Farmers 3.22) an here, as in Lucian (Assembly of the Gods, 5) and elsewhere the pet dog gets a diminutive: κυνίδιον.

In ancient literature, we see animals functioning as reflections for human characters. When Achilles’ horse Xanthus talks to him in the Iliad, he has the same color hair as his master and speaks to give a very Achillean message: you’re going to die. Alexander is paired in legend with Bucephalus, a horse who could be tamed only by the man who tamed the world. And Odysseus comes home to a loyal dog he forgot when he went to war. Bucephalus exists in narrative only to confirm Alexander’s greatness. Xanthus would speak for no other hero. Epic Argos exists only to increase Odysseus’ sense of loss and meaning.

Lip-cup from the British Museum

My family got a Newfoundland puppy after Tevye’s death. I kept a cautious distance from that dog and was off to college by the time she was four years old. I never had a conversation with my father about dogs and their deaths. I know he grew up with hunting dogs and my mother grew up with barn cats and farm animals and that both of them saw animals come and go in a way I never would. When my father died, he left behind a golden retriever and a wish that any donations in his name be made to the ASPCA. I bit my tongue at the irony.

When I turned 21 my future wife got me a kitten for my birthday. In truth, I think she really wanted a pet because she had never had one, but she also said that the way I talked about animals made her want to get one. I couldn’t tell her why getting a kitten caused me so much pain because I did not want to detract at all from the joy she experienced at getting one.

Chineh—which was a bastardized version of Tamil for “small”—was a feral cat who hated everyone except for my wife and me. When we went to the shelter, she put her paw outside the cage at us and meowed and it was over. My roommates and parents called her a devil cat. When I was in graduate school, my apartment burned out in an electric fire and somehow she survived. We put several thousand dollars on a credit card and spent a month cupping her rib cages to get her to cough up the smoke. I don’t know if that caused her health problems later, but it may have.

Chineh was 11 when our daughter was born. She was already having serious hormonal problems and was already less friendly than before. But I swear she changed around the baby. As our daughter grew and started to move, she would follow the cat around, pulling her tail, abusing her at every chance. And Chineh, who had scratched and bitten dozens of people before never hurt her at all.

When I left the clinic where Chineh was put to sleep, I gave them two different cat carriers and other accessories (they specialized in cats). They were hesitant because they thought I might get another cat someday. I told them I wouldn’t.

And here we are, a decade later, with two cats and hundreds of pictures on twitter to prove that I am, as my wife declares, obsessed with Hermes. Yes, he follows me to get a treat near dawn every morning. Yes, I brush him every night so his long hair won’t get matted. During the day, though, we stick to our own business.

I didn’t want to get more pets because I didn’t want to fail them. I resisted getting them because I don’t want to feel the grief of loss again. I didn’t want to get pets because I don’t want to see the pain in my children’s eyes when they die. But, as my wife says, that’s really no way to live at all.

I am going to resist getting a puppy named Zeus. Right now, my argument is that it will upset Hermes, because I can’t get these old stories out fast enough to make sense.

How Many Angels on the Head of a Pin? How Many Oarsmen on Achilles’ Ships?

Scholia T ad Homer Iliad 16.170

“Achilles, dear to Zeus, had fifty ships which he led to Troy. In each of the ships there were fifty companions at the benches.” How, people ask, is it that the Poet who typically augments Achilles elsewhere, diminishes him in this passage? Is it because there is no excellence in numbers?

Aristarchus, however, says that there are fifty rowers [only] because of the phrase “on the benches”, meaning sailors as support crew. Dionysus, still, claims that the greatest number of rowers possible was 120 and that most ships had between these two numbers, so that the average amount was 86 men.”

πεντήκοντ᾽ ἦσαν νῆες θοαί, ἧισιν ᾽Αχιλλεὺς ἐς Τροίην ἡγεῖτο διίφιλος· ἐν δὲ ἑκάστηι πεντήκοντ᾽ ἔσαν ἄνδρες ἐπὶ κληῖσιν ἑταῖροι] πῶς, φασίν, ἐν ἅπασιν αὔξων ᾽Αχιλλέα τούτωι μειοῖ; τινὲς μὲν οὖν, ὅτι οὐκ ἐν πλήθει ἡ ἀρετή … ᾽Αρίσταρχος δέ φησιν ν̄ ἐρέτας εἶναι διὰ τὸ ῾ἐπὶ κληῖσιν᾽ ἢ ναύτας πρὸς ὑπηρεσίαν. Διονύσιος δὲ τὸν μέγιστον ἀριθμὸν ρ̄κ̄ τιμᾶι, τὸ δὲ λοιπὸν ἐν τῶι μεταξὺ τούτων ἄγεσθαι, ὡς φθάνειν πάσας ἀπὸ π̄ε̄ ἀνδρῶν.

Ah, another case study of that “morbus Graecorum”

Seneca, De Brevitate Vitae 13

“It would be annoying to list all the people who spent their lives pursuing board games, ball games, or sunbathing. Men whose pleasures are so busy are not at leisure. For example, no one will be surprised that those occupied by useless literary studies work strenuously—and there is great band of these in Rome now too.

This sickness used to just afflict the Greeks, to discover the number of oarsmen Odysseus possessed, whether the Iliad was written before the Odyssey, whether the poems belong to the same author, and other matters like this which, if you keep them to yourself, cannot please your private mind; but if you publish them, you seem less learned than annoying.”

Persequi singulos longum est, quorum aut latrunculi aut pila aut excoquendi in sole corporis cura consumpsere vitam. Non sunt otiosi, quorum voluptates multum negotii habent. Nam de illis nemo dubitabit, quin operose nihil agant, qui litterarum inutilium studiis detinentur, quae iam apud Romanos quoque magna manus est. Graecorum iste morbus fuit quaerere, quem numerum Ulixes remigum habuisset, prior scripta esset Ilias an Odyssia, praeterea an eiusdem essent auctoris, alia deinceps huius notae, quae sive contineas, nihil tacitam conscientiam iuvant sive proferas, non doctior videaris sed molestior.

Lenormant Relief, c. 410 BCE

Nothing is So Simple. Nothing is So Great.

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 2.1023-1039

“Listen, put your mind now on true reason.
For a new matter rises fiercely to meet your ears
and a new image of the universe strives to show itself.

Nothing is so simple that at first sight
it is not rather difficult to believe;
and in the same way nothing is so great or miraculous
that over time we don’t slowly fail to behold it with wonder.

Consider first the clear and pure color of the sky
and everything it holds, the wandering stars
the moon and the gleam of the sun with its bright light;
If suddenly mortals now saw all these things
for the first time with no prior experience of them,
could anything possibly be said to be more wondrous
or would the races of men have dared to believe they existed?
Nothing. I believe that is how striking the sight would be.
But now, since we are so used to seeing them,
no one thinks it worthwhile to gaze at heaven’s bright splendor.”

Nunc animum nobis adhibe veram ad rationem.
nam tibi vehementer nova res molitur ad auris
accedere et nova se species ostendere rerum.
sed neque tam facilis res ulla est, quin ea primum
difficilis magis ad credendum constet, itemque
nil adeo magnum neque tam mirabile quicquam,
quod non paulatim minuant mirarier omnes,
principio caeli clarum purumque colorem
quaeque in se cohibet, palantia sidera passim,
lunamque et solis praeclara luce nitorem;
omnia quae nunc si primum mortalibus essent
ex improviso si sint obiecta repente,
quid magis his rebus poterat mirabile dici,
aut minus ante quod auderent fore credere gentes?
nil, ut opinor; ita haec species miranda fuisset.
quam tibi iam nemo fessus satiate videndi,
suspicere in caeli dignatur lucida templa.

 

Image result for Ancient Roman Night sky
Image taken from Pinterest,

Judging the Days of the Week

Hesiod, Works and Days 822-828

“Some days bring great advantage to mortals on the earth,
But others are unpredictable, aimless, providing nothing.
One person praises one, another praises a different one,
But few know at all. One day’s a mother, another a stepmother.

Lucky and blessed is someone who knows all these things
And does all their work without angering the gods,
Judging all the bird signs and avoiding excesses.”

αἵδε μὲν ἡμέραι εἰσὶν ἐπιχθονίοις μέγ᾽ ὄνειαρ·
αἱ δ᾽ ἄλλαι μετάδουποι, ἀκήριοι, οὔ τι φέρουσαι,
ἄλλος δ᾽ ἀλλοίην αἰνεῖ, παῦροι δέ τ᾽ ἴσασιν·
ἄλλοτε μητρυιὴ πέλει ἡμέρη, ἄλλοτε μήτηρ
τάων. εὐδαίμων τε καὶ ὄλβιος, ὃς τάδε πάντα
εἰδὼς ἐργάζηται ἀναίτιος ἀθανάτοισιν,
ὄρνιθας κρίνων καὶ ὑπερβασίας ἀλεείνων.

Terracotta jug Period: Cypro-Archaic I Date: ca. 750–600 B.C. ...
Cypriot Vase, c. 750-600 BCE, MET

 

Diary of a Towson CCA Worker – The Roar

The Cyclops Had Three Eyes and They Were His Brothers

John Malalas, Chronographia, V

“The wise Euripides put in his poetic drama about the Cyclops that he had three eyes, indicating by this that he had three brothers and that they cared for one another and kept a watchful eye on one another’s places in the island, fought together, and avenged one another.

And he also adds that he made the Cyclops drunk and unable to flee, because Odysseus made that very Cyclops “drunk” with a ton of money and gifts so he would not “eat those with him up”, which is not actually to consume them with slaughter.

He also says that Odysseus blinded his one eye with torch fire, really meaning that he stole away the only daughter of Polyphemos’ brother, a maiden named Elpê, with “fire”, which means he seized her on fire with burning lust. This is what it means that he burned Polyphemos in one of his eyes, he really deprived him of his daughter. The very wise Pheidias of Corinth provided this interpretation saying that Euripides explained this poetically because he did not agree with what the wisest Homer said about the wandering of Odysseus.”

ὁ γὰρ σοφὸς Εὐριπίδης <ποιητικῶς> δρᾶμα ἐξέθετο περὶ τοῦ Κύκλωπος, ὅτι τρεῖς ἔσχεν ὀφθαλμούς, σημαίνων τοὺς τρεῖς ἀδελφοὺς (50 F 2) ὡς συμπαθοῦντας ἀλλήλοις καὶ διαβλεπομένους τοὺς ἀλλήλων τόπους τῆς νήσου καὶ συμμαχοῦντας καὶ ἐκδικοῦντας ἀλλήλους. (2) καὶ ὅτι οἴνωι μεθύσας τὸν Κύκλωπα ἐκφυγεῖν ἠδυνήθη, διότι χρήμασι πολλοῖς καὶ δώροις ἐμέθυσε τὸν αὐτὸν Κύκλωπα ὁ ᾽Οδυσσεὺς πρὸς τὸ μὴ κατεσθίειν τοὺς μετ᾽ αὐτοῦ, <τουτέστι μὴ καταναλίσκειν σφαγαῖς>. (3) καὶ ὅτι λαβὼν ᾽Οδυσσεὺς λαμπάδα πυρὸς ἐτύφλωσε τὸν ὀφθαλμὸν αὐτοῦ τὸν ἕνα, διὁτι τὴν θυγατέρα τὴν μονογενῆ τοῦ ἀδελφοῦ αὐτοῦ Πολυφήμου ῎Ελπην, παρθένον οὖσαν, λαμπάδι, πυρὸς ἐρωτικοῦ καυθεῖσαν ἥρπασε, τουτέστιν ἕνα τῶν ὀφθαλμῶν τοῦ Κύκλωπος ἐφλόγισε τὸν Πολύφημον τὴν αὐτοῦ θυγατέρα ἀφελόμενος. (4) ἥντινα ἑρμηνείαν ὁ σοφώτατος Φειδίας(?) ὁ Κορίνθιος ἐξέθετο, εἰρηκὼς ὅτι ὁ σοφὸς Εὐριπίδης ποιητικῶς πάντα μετέφρασε, μὴ συμφωνήσας τῶι σοφωτάτωι ῾Ομήρωι ἐκθεμένωι τὴν ᾽Οδυσσέως πλάνην.

Ok, this story might be totally nuts, but there was a scholiastic debate about how many eyes Polyphemos had.

The Sorrow of Times Like These

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 6.1230-1251

“This thing alone had to be mourned the most,
This lamented: how when anyone would give up
when they realized they had contracted the disease
As condemned to die, they would stretch out with a sad heart,
Surrendering their spirit while considering the rites of the dead.

For the spread of that greedy sickness did not stop
Even for a single moment from one to another,
Thick together as woolly flocks and horned heads—
That’s the reason why grave was piling on grave.
Whoever was reluctant to see their own sick,
For this very excessive love of life and fear of death
They were punished eventually with a foul and evil end,
As deserters without help, paid back for their neglect.

But those who stayed to help faced contagion too,
And the suffering which shame compelled them to meet.
The pleading voice of the weary mixed with cries of complaint.
Well, the best kinds of souls met death like this.

…Then some falling upon others, fighting to bury their masses
Of dead, worn out by tears and grief as they returned.
They surrendered to their beds for the better part.

No one could be found anywhere who was untouched by the disease
By the death, by the sorrow of times like these.”

Illud in his rebus miserandum magnopere unum
aerumnabile erat, quod ubi se quisque videbat
implicitum morbo, morti damnatus ut esset,
deficiens animo maesto cum corde iacebat,
funera respectans animam amittebat ibidem.

quippe etenim nullo cessabant tempore apisci
ex aliis alios avidi contagia morbi,
lanigeras tamquam pecudes et bucera saecla;
idque vel in primis cumulabat funere funus.
nam quicumque suos fugitabant visere ad aegros,
vitai nimium cupidos mortisque timentis
poenibat paulo post turpi morte malaque,
desertos, opis expertis, incuria mactans.

qui fuerant autem praesto, contagibus ibant
atque labore, pudor quem tum cogebat obire
blandaque lassorum vox mixta voce querellae.
optimus hoc leti genus ergo quisque subibat.
. . . . . . .
inque aliis alium, populum sepelire suorum
certantes; lacrimis lassi luctuque redibant;
inde bonam partem in lectum maerore dabantur.
nec poterat quisquam reperiri, quem neque morbus
nec mors nec luctus temptaret tempore tali.

 

Palermo-trionfo-della-morte-bjs.jpg
Triumph of Death Fresco, Palermo

File:Follower of Jheronimus Bosch - The Harrowing of Hell.jpg
“The Harrowing of Hell” Hieronymus Bosch

Epic and Therapy: Helplessness, Loss, and Collective Trauma

“Alcidamas called the Odyssey a ‘fine mirror of human life’ ”

καλὸν ἀνθρωπίνου βίου κάτοπτρον

Aristotle, Rhetoric

Like many of the people I talk to, I find myself incapable of focusing on much these days as a I move mechanically from zoom ‘teaching’ to virtual meetings, all while doom scrolling on twitter. We joke about “the end of the world” even as it is in fact the end of an era. I often think of these repeated motions as a kind of paralysis: with no new goal, bereft of any way to change anything, just waiting for some report or action to show me the way. Then, at the end of each day, watching the news leaves me exhausted in the wake of intense, yet impotent, rage.

The image that comes to my mind too frequently is Odysseus on the shore of Kalypso’s island in the Odyssey’s fifth book. (5.151–159):

Kalypso found [Odysseus] sitting on the water’s edge. His eyes were never dry
of tears and his sweet life was draining away as he mourned
over his homecoming, since the goddess was no longer pleasing to him.
But it was true that he stretched out beside her at night by necessity
In her hollow caves, unwilling when she was willing.
By day, however, he sat on the rocks and sands
wracking his heart with tears, groans and grief,
Shedding tears as he gazed upon the barren sea.

τὸν δ’ ἄρ’ ἐπ’ ἀκτῆς εὗρε καθήμενον· οὐδέ ποτ’ ὄσσε
δακρυόφιν τέρσοντο, κατείβετο δὲ γλυκὺς αἰὼν
νόστον ὀδυρομένῳ, ἐπεὶ οὐκέτι ἥνδανε νύμφη.
ἀλλ’ ἦ τοι νύκτας μὲν ἰαύεσκεν καὶ ἀνάγκῃ
ἐν σπέεσι γλαφυροῖσι παρ’ οὐκ ἐθέλων ἐθελούσῃ·
ἤματα δ’ ἂμ πέτρῃσι καὶ ἠϊόνεσσι καθίζων
[δάκρυσι καὶ στοναχῇσι καὶ ἄλγεσι θυμὸν ἐρέχθων]
πόντον ἐπ’ ἀτρύγετον δερκέσκετο δάκρυα λείβων.

When we find Odysseus at the beginning of his epic he has been here on the shore of Ogygia, crying during the day for seven years (and, let’s not forget, having sex with a goddess each night, which has lost its charm). I think I go here because I have taught the Odyssey and I have spent the past five years writing a book about Homeric epic’s internal theory of the human mind, emphasizing how the Odyssey presents its characters responding to suffering and trauma in ways that correspond to modern psychological observations and interventions. I don’t know if this makes me any more capable of coping with what we are all facing, but it does remind me daily that the nothing we are experiencing  is something and that this drawn out, uncertain catastrophe is reshaping us.

What I have learned from these years of reading is that ancient poetry (and modern literature too) can come as close to anything else as offering a guide to our grief and providing a primer on how to stay human in inhumane times. And this makes it even clearer to me that not talking about these experiences while they happen is dangerous. I hear the trauma and fear in my own voice and in the words of my friends and colleagues, and I worry about who we will all be on the other side. Talking about this may make a difference. Acknowledging it might help us emerge a little stronger, if not faster, with fewer of us left behind.

 

Helplessness and Complex Loss

“The person who is sick in the body needs a doctor;
someone who is sick in the mind needs a friend
For a well-meaning friend knows how to treat grief.”

Τῷ μὲν τὸ σῶμα † διατεθειμένῳ κακῶς
χρεία ‘στ’ ἰατροῦ, τῷ δὲ τὴν ψυχὴν φίλου·
λύπην γὰρ εὔνους οἶδε θεραπεύειν φίλος.

Menander (fr. 591 K.)

One of the things I think that gets overlooked when people focus on the Odyssey’s heroic narrative is the extent to which the epic features characters who are trapped and deprived of control over their life in some fundamental way. Odysseus, of course, is clearly marginalized from action right at the beginning of the epic. But when Athena—as Mentor—first finds Telemachus, he is caught in a daydream, thinking about his father:

“God-like Telemachus saw her much the first
For he was sitting among the suitors, pained in his dear heart,
Dreaming about his noble father in his thoughts…”

τὴν δὲ πολὺ πρῶτος ἴδε Τηλέμαχος θεοειδής·
ἧστο γὰρ ἐν μνηστῆρσι φίλον τετιημένος ἦτορ,
ὀσσόμενος πατέρ’ ἐσθλὸν ἐνὶ φρεσίν…

In his recent book about Telemachus, Charles Underwood sees this daydream as a type of fantasy where Telemachus explores possible futures (2018, 25–31). I like this formulation a lot, but what I also see here is that it is not until after several conversations with Athena that Telemachus can even conceive of acting himself. He is, essentially, a grammatical subject but not an agent, which makes him an object of the forces in his world and goes a great way to explain his lack of action.

Telemachus is, I think, in a kind of paralysis that issues from his experience of the world (rather than in it because he has done so little).  And he sets us up to see other figures in the epic from the perspective of agency and object, of limitations that our views of ourselves in the world impose on whether we think we can act in it. Penelope, Odysseus, and even minor figures like Eupeithes the father of a slaughtered suitor appear in frozen states. In each case, the epic invites its audiences to see how a character’s experiences and context shape or constrain their ability to act in the world.

And here’s a simplified explanation for what the epic is reflecting. When we cannot run from a threat or rise to fight it, we are shocked into a moment of inaction, frozen in time like proverbial deer in headlights. From modern perspectives, this paralysis is rooted in a deferred fight-or-flight response. We have all encountered such moments when we do not know how to act, but deferment prolonged over time can have psychological consequences, creating pathological anxiety responses and forming an essential part of our relationship with trauma. Chronic activation of this stress response can have serious consequences for mental and physical health. Digestive issues? Yes. Sleep? Yes. Immune response? Yes, unfortunately 

In his book The Evil Hours, David J. Morris talks about how people suffering from trauma exist in a “liminal state” between life and death (2015, 6-7). To what extent people get stuck in this state has little to do with who you are before—no one can predict the overlapping impact of emotional and somatic responses. But a sense of helplessness can enhance the impact of trauma considerably. As a category, psychologists have discussed “learned helplessness”—the process of becoming habituated to a lack of agency and control over life—and its maladaptations for over a century. A developed sense of helplessness can make it hard to learn new things or demonstrate what you have learned; it has been linked to depression and anxiety; and it can prevent us from making plans for the future because we believe or suspect our own agency does not matter at all (see Mikuluncer 1994 for a full study).

A sense of lost agency—which contributes to depression on its own—is just not about helplessness: it has a recursive and reinforcing relationship with trauma. Prolonged helplessness changes the way we see the world and is itself traumatizing; helplessness in the face of prolonged suffering can be dehumanizing.

The Odyssey, I think, gives us a range of figures subject to helplessness and marginalization from different sources. Odysseus, of course, is the most obvious figure (followed by Telemachus, as I write about in a few places). But many major and minor figures are trapped in cycles of behavior from which they have little escape. Menelaos and Helen in book 4 are engaged in “off task coping” (drugs and alcohol), arguing about the past through the stories they tell, constrained by the decisions they made, the actions they committed, and the inability to imagine any different future.

The enslaved people of the epic have either completely internalized their worthlessness and commitment to their masters (Eumaios and Eurykleia) or they lash out with ‘misbehavior’ only to be murdered for it later (Melantho, Melanthios, the other enslaved women). Laertes has retreated to his gardens, repeatedly going over the same works again and again. Penelope reduces to tears amid her pacing from room to hall, expressing that most human of needs to feel something or give up. Her uncertainty is like the fragmentation David Morris describes in traumatized figures: their past and present seem disconnected and the future is hard to imagine at all. Trauma and helplessness undermine the internal assumptions of causality which makes it possible for us to act in the world.

The Odyssey also gives us a sense of trauma’s multiple sources: it is not just that people are marginalized by their sense of helplessness, but they are also undone by unresolved loss. Characters like Penelope, Menelaos, and Eupeithes (the father who lost his son and speaks in favor of killing Odysseus at the end of the epic) are shown undone by the grief that comes from not knowing if someone is dead or alive (in reference to Odysseus) or not being able to attend to their grief in a way they understand (as in Eupeithes’ desire for revenge). In recent years, researchers have called these types of emotion “ambiguous loss” or “complicated grief” and have explained how they create and perpetuate states of inaction (see Boss 1999) or paralytic returns to the topic of loss and uncertainty (see Hall et al. 2014).

So, if you feel paralyzed for events, stultified by your own response, or lost in trying to make some sense of each day, that’s your brain and body telling you something. The world is changing in ways we cannot fully understand, and it hurts. It is ok not to write a book during your isolation; it is normal to feel distracted and lost.  Overeating or drinking too much? Look at the suitors waiting for something to happen in their lives. Having trouble sleeping? Both Telemachus and Odysseus stay awake all night. Having trouble not sleeping? Penelope is overwhelmed with exhaustion (and weeping) by Athena.

File:Athena appearing to Odysseus to reveal the Island of Ithaca by Giuseppe Bottani.jpg
Athena and Odysseus by Giuseppe Bottani

Collective Trauma and Social Memory

Continue reading “Epic and Therapy: Helplessness, Loss, and Collective Trauma”

Some Casual Misogyny in The Scholia to the Iliad

It is probably not surprising to hear that the Homeric poems express misogynistic ideology; even the ancient poet Palladas recognized that Homer was something of a misogynist. But, get this, the ancient scholia are pretty awful too!

In a recent article, Sarah Scullin collects misandrist myths and topics from Greece and Rome. Reading some ancient scholarship can make us see why someone might find such ideas attractive. The following lines and commentary from the Homeric Scholia come from the scene at the end of book 1 of the Iliad where Hera talks to Zeus about his recent conversation with Thetis.

Il. 1.539

αὐτίκα κερτομίοισι Δία Κρονίωνα προσηύδα·

“Immediately, she addressed Kronos’ son Zeus with heart-rending words.”

Schol. bT ad Il. 1.539

“heart-rending”: words which hit the heart. For, both of these things are womanly: to be suspicious and to not restrain speech.”

κερτομίοισι: τοῖς τὸ κέαρ βάλλουσι. γυναικεῖα δὲ ἄμφω, τό τε ὑπονοῆσαι καὶ τὸ μὴ ἐπισχεῖν τοῦ λόγου.

Il. 1.542-3

…οὐδέ τί πώ μοι
πρόφρων τέτληκας εἰπεῖν ἔπος ὅττι νοήσῃς.

“…never at all do you dare to willingly say to me whatever plan you are thinking up.”

Schol. A ad Il. 1.542-3

“not ever at all”: women get annoyed unless their husbands share everything in common with them.”

οὐδέ τί πώ μοι: δυσχεραίνουσιν αἱ γυναῖκες, εἰ μὴ πάντα αὐταῖς ἀνακοινοῖντο οἱ ἄνδρες.

Il. 1.553

καὶ λίην σε πάρος γ’ οὔτ’ εἴρομαι οὔτε μεταλλῶ,

“I never previously have been asking you or questioning you excessively”

Schol. bT ad Il. 1.553

“excessively you before”: women customarily deny it whenever they have been really annoying to their husbands.”

καὶ λίην σε πάρος: ἔθος γυναιξὶν ἀρνεῖσθαι, ὅτι ποτὲ παρηνώχλησαν τοῖς ἀνδράσιν.

Hera and Prometheus, tondo of a 5th-century BCE cup from Vulci, Etruria

“His Heart Barked”: Sex, Slaves, and Transgression in the Odyssey

Earlier I posted a passage from the Odyssey where the narrator tells us that Penelope raised the slave Melanthô and gave her toys. This detail is paired with the slave woman’s sexual behavior—she is now a bad slave because she is having sex with one of the suitors.

Odyssey, 18.321–5

“Then fine-cheeked Melanthô reproached him shamefully. Dolios fathered her and Penelope raised her, she treated her like her own child and used to give her delights for her heart. But she did not have grief in her thoughts for Penelope. Instead she was having sex with and feeling affection for Eurymakhos.”

τὸν δ’ αἰσχρῶς ἐνένιπε Μελανθὼ καλλιπάρῃος,
τὴν Δολίος μὲν ἔτικτε, κόμισσε δὲ Πηνελόπεια,
παῖδα δὲ ὣς ἀτίταλλε, δίδου δ’ ἄρ’ ἀθύρματα θυμῷ·
ἀλλ’ οὐδ’ ὧς ἔχε πένθος ἐνὶ φρεσὶ Πηνελοπείης,
ἀλλ’ ἥ γ’ Εὐρυμάχῳ μισγέσκετο καὶ φιλέεσκεν.

The meaning of this behavior might not be clear to modern audiences. Ancient audiences might have needed clarification too. The epic shows Odysseus witnessing this later.

20.5–24

“Odysseus was lying there, still awake, devising evils in his heart
For the suitors. And the women went from the hall
The ones who were having sex with the suitors before
Greeting one another with a welcome and a laugh.
And Odysseus’ heart rose in his dear chest.
He debated much in his thoughts and through his heart
Whether after leaping up he should deal out death to each woman
Or he should allow them to have sex with the arrogant suitors
a last and final time. The heart inside his chest barked.
And as a mother dog who stands over her young pups
When she sees an unknown man barks and waits to fight,
So his heart growled within him as he was enraged at the evil deeds.
Then he struck his chest and reproached the heart inside him.
Endure this my heart, you endured a more harrowing thing on that day
When the savage Cyclops, insanely daring, ate
My strong companions. You were enduring this and your intelligence
Led you from that cave even though you thought you were going to die.”

ἔνθ’ ᾿Οδυσεὺς μνηστῆρσι κακὰ φρονέων ἐνὶ θυμῷ
κεῖτ’ ἐγρηγορόων· ταὶ δ’ ἐκ μεγάροιο γυναῖκες
ἤϊσαν, αἳ μνηστῆρσιν ἐμισγέσκοντο πάρος περ,
ἀλλήλῃσι γέλω τε καὶ εὐφροσύνην παρέχουσαι.
τοῦ δ’ ὠρίνετο θυμὸς ἐνὶ στήθεσσι φίλοισι·
πολλὰ δὲ μερμήριζε κατὰ φρένα καὶ κατὰ θυμόν,
ἠὲ μεταΐξας θάνατον τεύξειεν ἑκάστῃ,
ἦ ἔτ’ ἐῷ μνηστῆρσιν ὑπερφιάλοισι μιγῆναι
ὕστατα καὶ πύματα· κραδίη δέ οἱ ἔνδον ὑλάκτει.
ὡς δὲ κύων ἀμαλῇσι περὶ σκυλάκεσσι βεβῶσα
ἄνδρ’ ἀγνοιήσασ’ ὑλάει μέμονέν τε μάχεσθαι,
ὥς ῥα τοῦ ἔνδον ὑλάκτει ἀγαιομένου κακὰ ἔργα.
στῆθος δὲ πλήξας κραδίην ἠνίπαπε μύθῳ·
“τέτλαθι δή, κραδίη· καὶ κύντερον ἄλλο ποτ’ ἔτλης,
ἤματι τῷ, ὅτε μοι μένος ἄσχετος ἤσθιε Κύκλωψ
ἰφθίμους ἑτάρους· σὺ δ’ ἐτόλμας, ὄφρα σε μῆτις
ἐξάγαγ’ ἐξ ἄντροιο ὀϊόμενον θανέεσθαι.”

Beyond whether or not the liaison was a good wooing strategy for Eurymachus, these closely paired statements show that despite being integrated into the family structure, Melantho has not internalized her position and has instead exercised agency in pursuing sexuality. (Or, perhaps more accurately, exercising control over her own body to choose a different master.) When the epic returns to the issue, it takes pains to depict the women as in control and to ensure that Odysseus witnesses it. When he reveals himself to the suitors in book 22, he accuses them of forcefully sleeping with the women.

22.35-38

“Dogs, you were expecting that out of the way I would not come
home from the land of the Trojans and you ruined my home,
Took the slave women in my house to bed by force
And wooed the wife of a man who was still alive…”

“ὦ κύνες, οὔ μ’ ἔτ’ ἐφάσκεθ’ ὑπότροπον οἴκαδε νεῖσθαι
δήμου ἄπο Τρώων, ὅτι μοι κατεκείρετε οἶκον
δμῳῇσίν τε γυναιξὶ παρευνάζεσθε βιαίως
αὐτοῦ τε ζώοντος ὑπεμνάασθε γυναῖκα…

The difference in tone is in part due to the level of narrative—in the first two scenes mentioned above, the sexual acts are observed through the narrator. When Odysseus talks about it, he characterizes the acts differently because he sees the sexual acts as transgressing his control of the household. If the women—who are animate objects, not people—have sex, then they are the sexual objects of aggressors against Odysseus’ control. This transgressive behavior on their part helps to explain why Odysseus decides to slaughter them.

Who should have sex with the slave women is implied by a narrative passage from the beginning of the epic (1.428–33)

“And with him Eurykleia carried the burning torches. She knew proper things, the daughter of Ops, the son of Peisênor whom Laertes bought to be among his possessions when she was just a girl and he paid a price worth 20 oxen. And he used to honor her equal to his dear wife in his home but he never had sex with her and he was avoiding his wife’s anger.”

τῷ δ’ ἄρ’ ἅμ’ αἰθομένας δαΐδας φέρε κεδνὰ ἰδυῖα
Εὐρύκλει’, ῏Ωπος θυγάτηρ Πεισηνορίδαο,
τήν ποτε Λαέρτης πρίατο κτεάτεσσιν ἑοῖσι,
πρωθήβην ἔτ’ ἐοῦσαν, ἐεικοσάβοια δ’ ἔδωκεν,
ἶσα δέ μιν κεδνῇ ἀλόχῳ τίεν ἐν μεγάροισιν,
εὐνῇ δ’ οὔ ποτ’ ἔμικτο, χόλον δ’ ἀλέεινε γυναικός·

It is exceptional here that Laertes does not have sex with Eurykleia. This indicates an economy of sexual slavery in which the slave women are the objects to be used by those who own them. If they are used without permission or act on their own, they represent perversions.

See:

Doherty, Lillian. 2001. “The Snares of the Odyssey: A Feminist Narratological Reading.” 117-133.
Thalmann, William G. 1998. “Female Slaves in the Odyssey.” 22–34

Related image
Red-figure Kylix, c. 490 BCE

 

A Penis on the Screen: Playing a Bard During a Plague

Homer, Odyssey 11.333-334

“So he spoke and they were all completely silent:
they were in the grip of a spell in their shadowy rooms”

ὣς ἔφαθ’, οἱ δ’ ἄρα πάντες ἀκὴν ἐγένοντο σιωπῇ,
κηληθμῷ δ’ ἔσχοντο κατὰ μέγαρα σκιόεντα.

Aristophanes, Peace 870

“Everything else is complete—but we need a penis.”

καὶ τἄλλ᾿ ἁπαξάπαντα· τοῦ πέους δὲ δεῖ.

 

Halfway through my 306th performance of my one-man folk opera retelling of Homer’s Odyssey in song, something happened that had never happened in the previous 305 performances. 

An audience member drew a penis on the screen.

That’s right. An audience member drew a penis on the screen and that penis was visible to the 75 other people who had logged in to Zoom to watch my very first ever virtual Odyssey performance.

Perhaps I should backtrack a bit and contextualize this particular penis because there is a clear hazard in leaving an uncontextualized penis out there.

A (not so) quick summary of how we got here: I graduated from University of Wisconsin-Madison in the late 90’s with a Bachelor’s Degree in Classics. Not long after I graduated I composed a 35 minute continuous one-man musical folk opera retelling of Homer’s Odyssey consisting of 24 first-person songs inspired by the characters and events of the epic poem.  

After years of development and long periods of hiatus, I built the program up to where by the mid-2010’s I was performing it at high schools and universities across the country.  In 2016, I wrote about my experiences as a “modern bard” for Eidolon.

Since writing that article, my reputation and calendar have grown and earlier this year I celebrated my 300th performance (which occurred in Arlington, Texas, at UTA) and performances in my 40th (Hawaii) and 41st (Wyoming) states. 

Some places to read and hear about my Odyssey performances are here, here, here, and here, and you can find a studio recording of the entire piece on YouTube.

2020 was supposed to be a banner year for me and my Classics-related music. By working really hard on booking, I started the year within shouting distance of getting shows scheduled in the remaining 9 states I needed to complete my goal of performing in all 50 states.  A month-long Odyssey tour of Europe in October and November was confirmed with dates in the UK, Ireland, Sweden, The Netherlands, Italy, and Greece.

And there was also new Classics-related music to start sharing in addition to my Odyssey.

The first week of March, just before the full-on coronavirus crisis began manifesting, I premiered a new cycle of songs called “The Blues of Achilles”, a reframing of Homer’s Iliad, as part of a wonderful program called Conversations with Homer at San Francisco State University.  Samples of this performance can be viewed here, here, and here.

The rest of the spring was to include three weeks of shows in Ohio, New York, Vermont, New Jersey, Michigan, Maryland, and Illinois, some Odyssey shows, some Blues of Achilles shows, an artist-in-residence opportunity, and a chance to perform Blues of Achilles songs as part of a program that brings classics to the incarcerated population. 

But of course by the second week of March I could see none of these shows were going to happen.  Campuses began to shut down and move online, travel became unwise, and by the third week of March my entire spring schedule, some 20 gigs, was gone, and the rest of my year’s touring (including Europe) was in doubt. 

I should interject here that I feel extremely lucky that I do not rely entirely upon performing music for my living.  These cancellations have resulted in a sizable loss of income, but I also have a guitar teaching practice (not to mention a partner with a job) to fall back on, so while these losses hurt (many of which I do hope to reschedule and all of which were done with compassion and understanding by understandably freaked and stressed out teachers and administrators), the pain was more from a standpoint of planning and momentum than the dire financial situation that many performing musicians have suddenly found themselves in.

Then last week something interesting happened: I got a DM on Twitter from a high school Latin teacher in Pennsylvania who wondered if I might try performing my Odyssey online through Zoom for some of her students. The sudden shift to online learning had left teachers scrambling to find activities and material with which to engage students. This teacher had seen me perform at the PAJCL convention in 2017 and thought my program would make for a good online event.  

I initially recoiled: so much of what I love about my Odyssey performances is wrapped up in the magic of the interaction between me and an in-person audience.  How would this online thing work? How could I truly encounter my audience if they were hundreds of miles away watching not me but 1s and 0s that represent me, listening not to my actual voice but to my voice as compressed through their computer speakers or earbuds, taking it in not as a group in the same room but in separate isolated spaces? 

But as I gave it more thought, I saw reasons to give it a shot. 

Some were practical, as in “this is the way the world is working now so you might as well try to adapt if you want gigs” and “if this format does work what kind of additional markets and opportunities might it open up for you.”

Some were artistic and intellectual as in “can I make these songs work in a new medium?” and “what might it illuminate for me as a classicist/Homerist about oral performance?” 

So I decided to go forward with it.  My contact and I had a conference call with a very patient and generous tech support guru from her district and we settled on using Zoom as the best platform to both accommodate both my performance needs and also comply with some of the privacy issues associated with educational institutions. 

We gave Zoom a trial run with a couple of students and teachers and it seemed to work well. We could mute all the cameras and microphones of the attendees and I could share my screen which would contain a powerpoint of the lyrics of my songs so the audience could follow along as I sang (I do this in every in-person show as well). 

I was nervous as I sat in my office with my wife sitting just out of the webcam shot to advance the powerpoint. I could see the online audience grow to 75 and after an introduction from the teacher, I was off and singing.  

It began well enough. My voice felt good and the teacher was texting my wife some feedback on the sound which seemed to be coming through fine.  I was just starting to settle in when suddenly some lines started popping up on my screen. Scribbled lines as if someone was able to draw on his or her iPad. 

Clearly we hadn’t quite gotten the settings right and the audience members had the capability to write things on the shared screen for all to see.

It was a little distracting to me and (I assumed) the audience but I pushed on.  I was on song 6 of my 24 when the scribbling became written words. I stopped singing and announced that if the scribbling continued, I’d have to stop the performance.  

This seemed to work for another 6 songs but just as I finished singing the song in which Odysseus finally lands on Ithaka in book 13, there is was:

That hastily drawn penis on the screen right next to my lyrics.

Image result for ancient greek phallus

Some quick observations: First, though in the moment I was not particularly thrilled with the phantom penis, it should be noted that the Greeks and Romans loved penises and were happy to have them in their art and theatre. One need look no further than the #phallusthursday hashtag on Twitter for ample evidence of this.

Second, I feel fairly confident that this penis was drawn by an adolescent male and the reason I feel fairly confident in this conclusion is that I myself was once (and sometimes still am) an adolescent male in whose life and psyche penis-related jokes and pranks figured prominently. To wit (and I believe the statute of limitations on this crime has expired), my senior year of high school the entire bass and tenor sections of our choir conspired to, in our performance of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, replace the word “truth” with the word “penis.” 

How disruptive could this be? you ask. Well, at one point in the arrangement the basses and tenors sing the phrase “truth is marching” over and over, something like 12 times in a row.  Perhaps now you can imagine our confused choir director searching around the room for why things didn’t sound quite right (sorry Mr. Hayes) as a group of 15 adolescent males melodically chanted the phrase “penis is marching” over and over.

So as I promised I would, I stopped the performance.  The teacher had determined the only way to fix the problem was by ending the Zoom session, creating a new one with the correct (non-screen writing) settings, and letting everyone log back in.

So that’s what we did: for the first time in 306 performances, I took an intermission.  Almost everyone came back online to the new session and I finished the performance without further incident, singing the remaining 12 songs that chronicle Odysseus’ reintegration into his home on Ithaka. 

Afterwards, I read and responded to audience questions from a Google docs as well as questions texted to me by the teacher. And then it was over.

Very suddenly, it was over.

In a regular performance, I’m used to a much more gradual ending.  Members of the audience often make their way to the stage to chat with me while I pack up my guitar. Faculty introduce themselves. There’s almost always a meal or a drink with a host or a group to get feedback and continue discussion.

But with my virtual performance, none of that.

Until I looked at my phone and saw social media messages and emails from some of the audience members.  Videos and pictures showing students glued to their computer screens watching me perform. Notes from teachers thanking me for giving them and their students something to break up the days stuck at home. 

Suddenly the penis didn’t matter so much and I saw a number of truths about this unique moment both in history and for me as a modern bard. 

First, everyone is trying really hard to do their best in a tough situation. Teachers are trying to teach, parents are trying to parent, students are trying to be students, all in a largely new environment. There are going to be bumps and difficult moments and it’s going to take some time to figure out what works and what doesn’t but in general folks are trying so hard and succeeding.

Second, this quick change to fully virtual learning is putting incredible forced stress on the people involved but from incredible forced stress sometimes comes innovation.  I would never have even attempted a virtual performance without these extenuating circumstances and outside pressures, but now because I have I am excited to develop it as a complement to what I do with in person performances and ultimately as a chance to reach more people with my music and the experience of hearing Odysseus’ story sung by a bard. I’m thinking in particular of places and schools that don’t have the budget to bring me in for an in-person performance but might be able to facilitate an online performance.  

Third, for all my preciousness about my in-person Odyssey performances and how they recreate the original oral environment, this virtual performance embodies all the same concepts I detailed in my Eidolon article with some unique and beautiful twists.  I’m always fascinated with how performance space impacts audience perception and therefore meaning, and in this case there were actually 75 different performance spaces, all acting upon the listeners and resulting in different experiences and meanings. The teacher who initially reached out to me said that while she enjoyed my performance at PAJCL (which was for an audience of 400), she liked the online performance even more because it felt like I was singing directly to her.  For all my misgivings about the technological distance, there was actually something more intimate about my online performance.

Fourth, my online performance is yet another example of how enduring, adaptable, and resilient myths and oral tradition are.  For as different as my performance looked from Phemios’ in book 1 or Demodokos’ in book 8, it was essentially the same as what bards have been doing for three millennia or more: singing stories to groups of people.  My guess is that if you offered a Homeric bard the chance to do a performance from the comfort of his home, he would have jumped at it before you finished telling him he might have to endure interruption by phantom penis drawing. 

As Joel added in the comments when he so graciously edited this piece: “Antinoos would totally have drawn a penis on his screen if he had a screen.”

In the end, perhaps it’s best to think that my virtual performance relates to my in-person performances in the way that the text we have today relates to a Homeric performance. They are related, connected at some point, but ultimately different ways to communicate and pass on stories.  It’s not a choice of either but rather an embrace of both, and this embrace ensures that the names and stories will continue to echo through history for new audiences in new times.

You might even say that “time is marching” but that is dangerously close to the phrase “truth is marching” and… well, you remember where that road leads.

Joe Goodkin is a modern bard who performs original music based on epic poetry and other subjects.  He can by seen and heard at http://www.joesodyssey.com http://www.thebluesofachilles.coom or http://www.joegoodkin.com and emailed at joe@joesodyssey.com about bookings or anything else.